by Stephen Bryen
Pacifying Kim Jong-un by halting military exercises with South Korea is a sign of weakness.
There is no reason for the US to make any concessions to North Korea. Nor is there any reason to accept the North Korean statement, however inelegantly put, not to “give Trump a summit for free.”
North Korea was offered an exceptional deal by President Trump, and true to form the North Koreans are trying to raise the price. They will keep on doing this while holding onto their nuclear weapons and weapon’s making capability.
If anyone wants to know about the deal, basically it was a huge cash infusion to redevelop North Korea’s economy. Trump has already approached foreign leaders to contribute funds, in particular Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. If North Korea was a serious and responsible player and truly wanted denuclearization, North Korea would have worked to define Mr. Trump’s generous offer. The reason they did not is simple: they intend to keep their nuclear weapons.
North Korea needs nuclear weapons for three reasons.
The first has to do with the United States. Nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles make North Korea a factor in America’s strategic calculations and a direct threat to American cities (assuming they are accurate and they work. So far at least, North Korea has no demonstrated its ability to construct a missile with a reentry system that can support a nuclear warhead, and their claim they have a miniaturized warhead in hand does not seem credible.)
The second has to do with South Korea. While of little practical use, North Korea can threaten South Korea with its nukes, at least until South Korea decides to build their own. In the current Moon Jae-in administration this won’t happen, but once he is replaced with a more conservative leader, it is inevitable. (This has implications for Japan, too.)
The third reason is China. The real power player in the region is China, not the United States. In fact the US presence in South Korea also serves to keep China out of the Korean peninsula. It is a big mistake to think that China and North Korea are friends. So far as we know, China made a number of attempts to overthrow Kim Jong-un, including backing Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. Kim had his half-brother murdered on February 13th 2017 in Kuala Lumpur using Sarin nerve gas in order to stop a Chinese-backed coup.
For Kim Jong-un, having nuclear weapons is a way to keep China from pushing him and his regime around. In future as North Korea develops a sufficient nuclear arsenal to cover major targets in China, China will need to be very careful how it handles its relations with North Korea.
Today, North Korea has better relations with Japan than it does with South Korea. Once can imagine in the not too distant future, if Japanese-South Korean relations continue to deteriorate, that Japan will more aggressively back Kim Jong-Un’s regime, including infrastructure investments and assistance in exploiting North Korean resources, especially rare earth metals. This in turn depends on whether the sanctions on North Korea stay in place. The best guess is they can probably be sustained for another year, two at most, but then the global consensus will shift against continuing the pressure on the North, whose only result is poverty, famine and the looming danger of a more aggressive North Korea.
Serious questions can be asked about how strong the US is in the northern Pacific?. Right now, the US is losing ground to China, and this may continue to be the case partly because there is opposition in the United States to investing too heavily in the region’s defense. There is a growing isolationism in the United States reflected in the politics of the left and right, Democrats and Republicans. It is exacerbated when our allies invest very little in their own security.
In the latest development, South Korea has broken off talks with the United States after the US asked South Korea to increase its contribution to maintaining US troops in that country.
Meanwhile, China is rapidly growing its military and significantly improving its weapons. These leaps by China in areas as diverse as stealth aircraft, quantum computing and carrier-killer missiles illustrate how China is challenging US strategic domination in China’s home area. Even under the most optimal conditions, the US will continue to find itself under pressure in territories near China. It is far from clear America’s allies will remain strongly linked to America’s security partnership.
To illustrate in plain terms the growing regional problem, consider that South Korea and Japan have been at each other’s throats, with Japan putting tariffs or slowing the delivery of critical materials to South Korea’s high tech industry, and South Korea retaliating by cancelling the General Security of Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between South Korea and Japan. The GSOMIA is a critical enabler for regional security and defense strategy. Technically without it Japan cannot share sensitive information it collects with South Korea’s military, such as information on regional threats including enemy submarine tracking and missile launches. Moon’s cancellation of the GSOMIA came without any consultation with his military, which he dislikes. But the real damage the GSOMIA incident underlines is that US influence in the region is in crisis, and the loss of US leadership over time means the chance for a functional collective security system is nil.
One can anticipate more weakening of American resolve in the near future as America starts to back away from Asian commitments, particularly if domestic politics in the United States pushes against extending American power in the Pacific. One can expect in the near term black articles appearing in newspapers, journals and books arguing that hanging on in the Pacific is a lost cause, one that will further harm American prestige and empty the American treasury.
Meanwhile, showing American weakness by giving in to Kim Jong-un seems to be a mistake from any angle. It gives Kim the ability to consistently raise the price while hanging on to his nuclear weapons, undermining whatever American president is in office. It puts a strong spotlight on what “locals” will see as a weakening America. And it does nothing to heal the rift in the American alliance, most markedly between Japan and South Korea.